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Pacific nations miss out on millions

Tuesday 6 October 2015 | Published in Regional


As major nations prepare to pocket millions from the most lucrative Rugby World Cup in history, the Pacific islands and lesser countries are being left to fight over the crumbs, Fairfax reporter Liam Napier reports from the UK.

In the opening week World Rugby chief executive Brett Gosper boasted the eighth global tournament – and highest grossing event yet – would make a profit of about £150 million (NZ$361 million) from more than £400 million ($970 million) in revenue.

From that pot, the top 10 nations – those that hold a full say around the World Rugby voting table – each receive about £7.5 million (NZ$18 million) as compensation for lost revenue from the June and November internationals.

But the Pacific islands and those that sit outside the inner sanctum get a one-off £150,000 (NZ$366,278) participation payment.

Unless there is a bonus system in place with the national unions – the All Blacks will each receive $150,000 if they win the Webb Ellis Cup, or $35,000 if they make the final – players don’t get any direct payments from the organiser’s bulging coffers.

Questions are now being asked about the disparity, and whether that is a fair distribution.

Funding and frustration among the Pacific islands is nothing new. Prior to a historic agreement between the Players’ Association and Samoan union, players would regularly pay out of their own pockets for travel and insurance.

It’s just one reason why many players of Pacific island descent opt to represent other countries. The salaries they can earn dwarf those their homelands can offer. Consequently this erodes depth in the islands.

Corruption, a lack of resources and natural isolation haven’t helped either. Throw in the long-held frustrations that Samoa, Fiji and Tonga must share one vote on the World Rugby voting board, rather than one each as is the case with the superpowers of the game, and the skewed revenue-sharing model hits at the heart of Pacific advancement.

If nothing changes, these lesser nations may turn to strike action.

Samoa threatened to strike before their test against England at Twickenham last November. It was only avoided after their union promised to make drastic changes to the treatment of players.

Not participating in a World Cup tournament could be the next move unless some form of compensation is reached. All these nations want is a fair slice of the commercial pie.

Funds generated in England, South Africa, New Zealand and the likes are never going to be matched by the smaller nations but Pacific Island Players’ Association head and former Highlanders flanker Josh Blackie believes there must be adjustments made around how players get paid.

“Historically for any sport across the world, change only comes when the players take a stand,” Blackie said.

“We’re not advocating for that sort of stuff. There’s too much harm to the game and fans, so we do our best to keep the pressure on and keep knocking at the door so at least the conversations are being had. Hopefully people see common sense sooner or later.

“But if you’re playing against England at Twickenham and there’s 80,000 people watching and the Rugby Union is getting £9 million or £10 million profit off the game and the players are earning a few hundred, then that’s a recipe for disaster. That’s what we saw with Samoa last year.”

The Pacific nations give much to the global game. Twelve of the 20 teams at the World Cup feature Pacific Island players; about 17 per cent of all professional rugby players are of Pacific descent.

Individually they bring distinctive flair, physicality and athleticism to the paddock – in terms of true World Cup stars, think Fijian flyer Rupeni Caucaunibuca and All Black superman Jonah Lomu, who holds Tongan heritage.

The Islands offer so many game-breakers to the world game. Look no further than Manu Tuilagi (England), Waisake Naholo (New Zealand), Noa Nakaitaci (France) and Tevita Kuridrani (Australia).

Seizing on the rich resources in the Pacific, French clubs have established academies in Fiji and 10 secondary school players, including one 14-year-old, last month agreed to contract offers to relocate there.

But the World Cup revenue model doesn’t reflect the role the Pacific plays in growing rugby.

The All Blacks, for example, each receive $7500 per week in camp. But it’s only in recent times that Island players have had their salaries cover costs.

“For a tournament that’s going to produce about £180 million, the players are a pretty significant part of producing that money,” Blackie said. “They’re not directly paid out of those windfalls.

“At a tier-two level there’s no equality around how they are rewarded for a World Cup. It’s not right that these Polynesian guys are turning up and people are coming to watch them and they’re not getting their fair compensation for that.

“New Zealand goes to a Football World Cup and the players receive as much as the Italian team, depending on how far the team goes. It all starts there in terms of how these guys participate in the World Cup.”

A more even revenue sharing model could make a dent against the long-standing problem of wealthy European clubs pressuring Island players to give up the their chance to play at a World Cup.

In 2003, Samoan star Trevor Leota opted to stay with his London club Wasps, while former Racing Metro coach and ex-All Black Simon Mannix alleged the French club paid their Fijian stars Sireli Bobo, Jone Qovu and Josh Matavesi to stay away from the 2011 World Cup in New Zealand. Former Chiefs turned London Irish coach Tom Coventry was another to highlight similar situations.

Pacific islanders are passionate about performing for their country. But it is a difficult balancing act when you factor in so many of the Island players need to provide for their large extended families.

“For a guy earning $150,000 playing for his club who he’s got a decent long-term deal with, there’s no incentive for him to come and perform for his country because while everyone else in the administration is being rewarded for their time and effort, he’s not,” Blackie said.

“When the questions come up around it being their duty, well, some of the administrators should try working for free and compromising their earning potential to see what it’s really like.”

Many Polynesian players are offered contract extensions, cars, houses and bonuses to pick country over club.

Census Johnston, a 34-year-old prop playing for Samoa at this World Cup, was put in this situation with his French club Toulouse. After six years with the club, he was offered a two-year deal on the basis he would skip the tournament.

Faced with uncertainty and the need to provide for his family, including three children, Johnston retired from test rugby in January.

But after being called in as injury cover for the ground-breaking match against the All Blacks in Apia, he realised he was not ready to give it away and went on to defy his club’s wishes and play in his third World Cup.

Potential compensation is never going to match the attractive European salaries. But anything would help bridge the gap.

“A lot of the Pacific Island boys decide to give up the tournament because of that,” Johnston said. “I know from personal experience not knowing what is happening and also getting offered – what are you going to chose?

“Getting that security is important. If World Rugby were able to provide some sort of compensation for the island boys, it would be great for the game in general. We’ve got the talent there, it’s about being able to get them all available and give them a piece of that pie.”

World Rugby argue they have invested £16 million (NZ$38 million) in the Pacific islands over the past four years and £53 million in the 10 tier-two countries over the same period. This includes funding specialist coaching, competition structures and administrative programmes.

“We don’t believe that clubs are holding the players,” World Rugby boss Gosper said. “We have not had any cases brought to our attention where clubs are holding the players and if that is the case we are very successful at changing the situation.

“We deal through our unions to ensure their players are well looked after as best they possibly can. We are not in the business of paying players directly from World Rugby. It is not our role.”

But Johnston says World Rugby is not doing enough.

“In Europe a lot of our players are big stars,” Johnston said. “That’s the pull of Samoan rugby and I think we deserve a piece of the pie. At the moment England sell out Twickenham because of the stars we have in our team. Not getting any part of it, it’s difficult to digest.

“I hope World Rugby will look at this after the World Cup and decide to give us a fair go.

“I know they say they work with the academies and put in high-performance centres in Samoa, but compared to what Samoan players give to rugby, it’s not balanced. It’s not fair.”